Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays where the experience is radically different if you live in a rural area or suburban area versus an urban area, especially if you are a shitheel 20-something and away from home.
In rural and suburban areas it’s a communal, often familial affair; almost routine.
In urban areas and far from family, you have a tiny kitchen that is absolutely not equipped for preparing the amount of food folks expect for Thanksgiving and, if you are in your 20s, you have absolutely no fucking clue what you’re doing, but no one else is doing the work so it’s up to, and you have no one to guide you.
There aren’t a lot of great Thanksgiving films out there, perhaps because the stress of a Thanksgiving dinner is equally mirrored and amplified by preparing a Christmas dinner. (A CHRISTMAS STORY is probably the best example of this, even though it’s solely about making a meal for immediate family as opposed to an extended family.)
PIECES OF APRIL is one of the few great Thanksgiving films. It focuses on the dichotomy between rural and suburban and urban expectations, of young adults trying to live up to the expectations of being fully-functional adults, even if they have been or currently are fuckups, while attempting to prepare an adult meal for everyone to enjoy, while also being not at all capable of doing so.
I know, because I’ve certainly been there, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
“I’m the first pancake.”
“It’s the one you’re supposed to throw out.”
PIECES OF APRIL is a very succinct depiction of a garbage person — April — trying to get better and attempting to mend the mistakes of their past by using food to apologize for her familial transgressions by inviting her suburban family — including her recalcitrant cancer-stricken mother, bitter about her sickness and April’s actions — to a Thanksgiving day trip to her NYC apartment.
“[We’re making] a good memory!”
“What if it’s not?”
“I promise it will be beautiful.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I told her it had to be.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Then I’ll kill her.”
April quickly realizes that her oven doesn’t work and scrambles through her building, looking for someone, anyone, to lend her some oven time to cook her turkey, often only to find doors slammed shut in her face while her boyfriend warmly traipses around the city in order to find an affordable suit to impress April’s parents. Matters escalate.
Katie Holmes is nakedly honest as April, a troubled youth, the black sheep of her family, the eldest of three children. As a youngster she had a penchant for fire and rebellion and when she had the chance, she ran off to New York City and spiraled into a world of drug dealers and even worse behavior.
PIECES OF APRIL is a perfect depiction of urban life, where many folks just want to live anonymously and are hardened by the rough life of an unforgiving city, but also of young misfits realizing what they put their family through, while also aware that they’re leading a very different life than the one that was expected of them.
The distance between myself and my immediate family is vast enough that I’ve never been put through the pressure cooker that April goes through, but as a fucking piece of garbage youth who moved halfway across the country to one of the largest cities in the U.S., and as someone who — along with my then-girlfriend/now-wife — has hosted my fair share of Friendsgivings and has screwed up my fair share of dishes, this film hits hard.
“You’re a bad girl! A very bad girl!”
“…no. I’m not.”
This was a ramshackle labor of love for writer/director Peter Hedges, shot extraordinarily cheaply — he was paid a whopping $20 for his efforts, and most of the cast worked for under $300 a day — Hedges made the most of it. There’s a visual intimacy here, mostly medium shots or close-ups to capture the emotional fraught nature of her family’s trip, as well as the stress April is enduring. Long shots are reserved for when April’s mom — an acerbic Patricia Clarkson — pushes her family away, rejecting the current situation.
Colors are often muted, although I’ve only seen this film via terrible DVD transfers. It might be intentional, an effort to visually cast a pall over the endeavors, but I might be reading too much into that.
While this summary may make this film sound like a downer, ultimately it’s about perseverance, of folks muscling through to try to do better, to give folks second chances, to showcase the grace that others can give others.
Is Thanksgiving fundamentally a fucking terrible holiday, one celebrating colonialism and downright genocide? Yes, yes it is. Is it terrible that so much of the nation overlooks that in favor for stuffing their faces? Yes, yes it is.
(I will note that PIECES OF APRIL does hang a hat on that, albeit not extremely successfully, but narratively and from a character perspective it makes sense.)
However, hosting Thanksgiving dinners is a rite of passage for many. It showcases that you can provide for others, that you can wrangle the many, many courses and dishes in a way that satisfies everyone and everyone can commune around the table and take comfort in one and another.
You’re living in this moment — a tiny one in the long run of your life — of knowing you’ve provided for those you hold dear and, despite the strife and stress and endless planning, you have a communal bonding moment over your rustic culinary efforts, the table a truce place setting, a few hours that are hopefully conflict-free where you can live in an idyllic familial fantasy of grace.
PIECES OF APRIL ends with a montage of photographs, memorializing the day, recording the above feelings for posterity, not just for the family, but also for whatever comes next. It’s a very simple, no-fuss film, but one that resonates with truth and the hardships of willing the endeavor of bringing everyone to the table, of making the effort in service of others. In other words: the perfect Thanksgiving film.
“One April day we’ll go miles away
and I’ll turn to you and say
I’ve always loved you in my way.
I’ll always love you in my way.”Stephen Merritt